It’s amazing when a cinematic couple manages to stay together and does some pretty amazing things both on and off screen until both members passed away. Over fifty years, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee remained one of the greatest pairings in cinematic history. Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee: Doing the Right Thing kicks off at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Thursday and highlights some of their more notable work – both separately and together – throughout their storied careers.
It kicks off with an incredibly rare 35mm screening of the film that many say sparked the Blaxplotation cinematic movement, Cotton Comes To Harlem (Thursday, January 29th, 9:30pm). It also signifies the writing and directorial debut of Davis. Adapted from the novel by Chester Himes, it’s one of the very first examples of a uniquely black story, told by black filmmakers and artists. It balances action, sex and comedy to create a piece of powerful piece of entertainment with a never before tapped socially conscious message.
That message lives on in movies like Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing (Saturday, January 31st, 6:30pm) where Davis & Dee share some of their greatest screen time on scorching hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant as “Da Mayor” and “Mother Sister,” respectively. Their time together here gives us just a glimpse of some of their earliest work despite being one of their most contemporary and timeless efforts. Theirs was a bond that started on the stages of Harlem before coming to Broadway and Hollywood, and Lee taps into their captivating abilities to connect to an audience and a story at the same time, despite neither being the main characters of the ensemble effort.
Working with lifelong friends Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, they appeared in the best adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s game changing play A Raisin In The Sun (Saturday, January 31st, 9:45pm) and the wildly fun, revisionist, and underrated western Buck and the Preacher (Sunday, February 1st, 12:30pm), respectively. Both films seem different at first glance, but they’re probably best at illustrating their roles as important voices striving for equality for black artists. They served as MC’s for the historic civil rights march on Washington, and even tried to serve as a bridge between leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the 1960’s. They served as open public figures and leaders during a time when it wasn’t always the easiest thing to do so, and both films can be read as meta-commentaries of the personalities involved.
The series includes screenings of two of their final, and possibly most widely loved efforts apart: the Ridley Scott crime epic American Gangster(Tuesday, February 24th, 8:45pm, for which Dee got her only Academy Award nomination) and the cultishly loved and utterly batshit horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (Friday, February 27th, 8:45pm, where Davis gives his career best comedic performance as a black version of John F. Kennedy). These films showcase two actors who continued to hone and refine their craft as performers up until the end of their lives.
It’s a retrospective timed perfectly to the start of Black History Month that greater defines the delicate balance between social consciousness and entertainment as evidenced by two of the greatest African American screen icons to ever live. Now if only they had a booked a screening of the Stephen King TV Mini-Series The Stand, which Davis and Dee both starred in, that would have been really fun to watch. You really can’t do better than this line-up, though.
For tickets, more information, and a full list of films showing, please visit tiff.net.